Have you ever listened to two wine enthusiasts talk about their favorite wines? If so, there was probably some wine terminology being thrown around that would go over most peoples’ heads. Wine can be, for some, an intimidating item to order as its flavors and textures can be quite complex, and if you’re a patron in a wine bar and you aren’t sure what questions to ask or how to find the words to describe wine you enjoy, then you might not feel very comfortable ordering a glass in a hip wine bar.
Wine tasting can be complex, but your wine tasting vocabulary doesn’t have to be. We’ve compiled a list of wine terminology that anyone can memorize and take out into the world. Let this be your basic wine guide to finding out what exactly you’re tasting when you sample a new wine, and the best questions to ask your server to assist them in pairing you with the best selection for your particular palate.
One of the greatest misused wine tasting terms is the distinction between wine that is dry and wine that is tannic. Wine that is high in tannins, or wine that is tannic, gives your mouth a feeling of being dried out, which is why the sensation is often mistaken for dry. In actuality, a dry wine simply means the absence of sugar, and therefore not sweet.
What makes a wine dry? During wine production, the juice from the grape is converted into alcohol, and during fermentation the yeast will eat the sugar in the juice. If the winemaker intends for the wine to be a touch sweet, they will stop the fermentation process before the yeast eats all the sugar. If the wine is intended to be dry, the winemaker allows all the sugar to be eaten up until no residual sugar is left over. In simple terms, the less sugar leftover from fermentation, the drier the resulting wine will be. If you taste a wine that isn’t sweet, it’s likely the wine was fermented to completion.
Many red wines are described by the level of tannins present. Again, many wine drinkers taste tannins and mistake them for dryness, since tannins leave your mouth feeling dried out. However, tannins actually come from a compound called polyphenols, which live in the grape’s skin, seeds, and stems. The way tannins become part of a wine’s profile is when the winemaker chooses to leave the skin, stems, and seeds in the wine juice during fermentation. The longer the polyphenol compound soaks in the grape juice, the higher the level of tannins that will be present in the final product, and the drier the wine will taste.
Tannins and sugar in wine are often blamed for the resulting headaches felt by the wine drinker. Some customers are sensitive to sugar and should avoid high acid or high sugar wines, and others might be sensitive to tannins. If you’re not sure about your tolerance for tannins, a great test would be to try a nice cup of black tea where there is a presence of tannins. A good experiment is to over-steep the tea in the water, enjoy your tea and see if you get a headache. Most important, however, is to always remember to drink plenty of water with your wine. Alcohol dehydrates your body and drinking lots of water is the best way to replenish your body and avoid those unpleasant headaches.
Sweet wines, you may have already figured, are wines that do have sugar remaining from the fermentation process. At least, that is one method to making a sweet wine. Grapes have natural sugar, and when the ABV of the wine is above 16-17%, the fermentation naturally stops before all the sugar can be eaten away, so it’s not always to the winemaker’s discretion. Sweetness can also be added to the juice by fortifying the wine with distilled spirits, such as sherry, port, or vermouth. The level of sugar in a particular wine is important to balance a grape that is high in acid.
There are many opinions about wines that are labeled as fruit forward or fruit driven. Often fruity wines are dismissed as overly sweet, cheap, out of balance, or just plain unexciting. In reality, a fruit forward wine has more to do with the amount of fruity aromas emanating from the glass and less to do with its level of sweetness. All wines have a certain amount of fruit concentration, but a fruit driven wine is packed with flavors and aromas of strawberries or blackberries and make for a jammy texture, and can actually be used to nicely balance out high levels of alcohol or tannin.
Acidity in wine can cause that mouth puckering sensation that wine lovers aren’t always a huge fan of, and residual sugar in wine is not only pleasing on the palate but can also smooth out the texture of an acidic wine and add amazing aromas.
When wine drinkers describe a wine as crisp, they’re likely referring to the level of acid present. Acidity is an important feature to wine as it balances the overripe or sweet flavors on the palate. Too much acidity and the wine will taste bitter, and not enough acid and the wine will taste dull. Generally white wines tend to be more prominently acidic as the acid works with the sugar to keep the flavors from becoming too rich. For red wines that are dry and low in tannins, acid brings the flavors to life. In the next section we’ll talk about how acid, fruit, sugar, and tannins must work together in order to develop a delicious wine profile.
Wine Examples to Match Described Profiles
As mentioned previously, high acid combined with residual sugar results in a wine that will be perceived as dry when drinking. When it comes to making wine that brings out the best flavors in the grape, the winemaker must know how to balance the sugar, the acid, and the tannins in order to create the appropriate texture and finish.
Because of all the complexities that go into growing and harvesting grapes, it’s important to know what you’re looking for in a varietal. The next time you're out at your favorite wine bar, try using these terms when describing your favorite wine and see what type of wine is matched for you.
Have you ever heard a customer ask their bartender for a suggestion of a full bodied wine? Did you know there is a simple way to find out how full or light a wine is without even taking a sip? The next time your server pours you a glass of wine and you swirl the drink in your glass to free the aroma, watch how the wine creates droplets that fall down the sides of the glass. You will see a particular density of wine droplets (referred to as the “legs”) fall down the inside of your glass. This phenomenon is based on the Gibbs-Marangoni Effect where the swirling of the wine causes the alcohol to evaporate, leaving behind fluid surface tension that causes the release of the wine’s aromas and creates wine legs that will fall down the inside of the glass. Generally the thicker the wine’s legs the more viscous the wine is, which indicates the “thickness” of the liquid (think of this in terms of heavy cream vs. skim milk), which can indicate elevated levels of tannin or alcohol. So if you already know you’re sensitive to wine that is high in tannins and/or sugar, ask your server for a light or medium bodied wine, and after they pour you a sample make sure to test its legs.
Every varietal must meet a specific harmony between sugar, acid, tannins, and fruit in order for the varietal’s profile to be appropriate for the terroir in which it was grown. Like we said, too much acid or too little sugar and your wine will quickly become bitter or bland. A well balanced wine should be at once refreshing, elegant, pleasant to drink, and will age longer and more efficiently than those that are not.
Knowing the importance of balance, however, is only half the battle. The other half is knowing how to maintain the proper balance in every selection. This is where climate and environment play a huge role. For example, wines grown in cooler climates such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay take more time to ripen than grapes grown in warmer climates, and therefore tend to be higher in acidity. Therefore in order to keep wines from cooler regions balanced the winemaker needs to balance the wine with sugar and fruit concentrate. Even with the added sweetness, such a high acidity will still result in a nice dry selection, as long as the producer struck the correct balance.
As the customer, pay attention to where your wine comes from. If you see on a menu a Pinot Noir grown and harvested in a warm climate, you should be suspicious about that wine’s balance. Ask to try before you buy.
All varietals have a certain amount of fruit, sugar, and citrus that contribute to a wine’s look and aroma. However, even if the wine you’re smelling has a delicious vanilla scent, your wine isn’t guaranteed to taste much like vanilla. This is where it’s beneficial to always ask your server about the texture, the mouthfeel, and the finish of your wine.
Texture and “mouthfeel” is wine slang for literally how the wine feels when it’s inside of your mouth. Depending on the balance of your selection, the texture of your wine could be smooth, coily, silky, velvety, or crisp. Obviously some textures are more popular than others, but this is where most wine drinkers find the best wine for their preferred taste or the wine that is most appropriate for the occasion. The easiest way to think of texture on your palate is to think of what it is like to drink apple cider vinegar, and what it is like to drink heavy cream – vinegar has a high level of acid so it will taste sharp and linear in your mouth. Heavy cream is round and full and will taste smooth and soft in your mouth.
If it’s a warm summer day and you’re enjoying a nice salad on your lunch break, what sort of texture would be the most pleasing from your wine? A Chardonnay is a nice choice for the occasion, but which Chardonnay on the menu should you pick? Many Chardonnay’s will probably have a buttery texture, which tastes great but can also sit thick and heavy on your tongue. Another common Chardonnay texture is oaky, which could bring out the citrus of the wine. Both textures are delicious, but that doesn’t mean they’re for everybody, so ask your server about the mouthfeel of their Chardonnay options.
Texture is subjective and the same can be said for finish. The taste of a wine’s finish differs from texture in that finish refers to the last flavor to touch your tongue after taking a sip of your wine. Within one sip you could taste a few to many flavors and textures, but there can only be one, single finish.
Being a wine “expert” isn’t about being a master sommelier, but more so about recognizing when your wine is, or is not, varietally correct. Many vineyards grow their grapes in a terroir, which refers to the set environmental elements that must be present in order for the wine from that vineyard to have a consistent texture, finish, and balance. Modern vineyards specialize in terroirs as a staple of their region. Take a sip or even a sniff of a Pinot Noir from Oregon and from then on you should know that is the profile of a Oregon Pinot Noir. Try the same experiment on a Pinot Noir from France and see if you can find the difference.
Varietal typicity refers to the varietal and the climate from which the wine is grown. A glass of Pinot Noir isn’t just a glass of Pinot Noir. Wine “experts” aren’t expected to have the varietal typicity of every grape memorized, but they should know when a winery tries to claim a Burgundy Pinot Noir from France is “pretty much the same” as a Panther Creek Pinot Noir from Oregon, that claim is varietally incorrect.
A wine “expert” should also know what practices are in and out of style. Many wine enthusiasts love to brag about their wine cellar, but as an “expert” the first thing you should know is that you don’t need a wine cellar. Cellaring wine is meant to store fine wine until it's aged to its best quality. However, 99% of wine has already reached its best quality on day one of its purchase. Wine is a world-wide popular beverage, and winemakers today are in the business of selling great wine to you to be enjoyed on the day of its purchase so customers can return to the winery again as soon as possible. Modern technology has gifted us with the ability to produce and sell wine the way modern consumers love to shop. Quickly, efficiently, with plenty of variety, and little long term commitment.
Having a basic wine vocabulary can be a great tool for navigating your way through an extensive wine menu, but what’s really beneficial about knowing just a few common wine terms is having the ability and confidence to select a varietal that fits with your taste buds. Know what type of wine you enjoy and why ensures that you never order the wrong wine pairing with your meal, never waste money on an expensive bottle that turns out to taste unappealing, and never again need to turn to a dinner companion for guidance on the wine you should order from the menu. Follow our basic wine guide and become an expert yourself… or at least you can pretend to be one.